Cohen impressive in understated debut with MOB

By Tim Sawyier, Chicago Classical Review
January 30, 2024

Music of the Baroque hosted two high-profile debuts Monday night at the Harris Theater. Jonathan Cohen, the new music director of Boston’s venerable Handel and Haydn Society as well as Les Violons du Roy, led the MOB Orchestra for the first time in a program of Bach and music of the French Baroque.

Perhaps even more anticipated was the MOB debut of violinist Viktoria Mullova. Since winning first prizes in the Sibelius and Tchaikovsky Competitions in the early 1980’s, and then defecting to the West before the fall of the Soviet Union, Mullova has forged a decorated and wide-ranging career spanning from classical to jazz to contemporary. MOB music director Dame Jane Glover was in the audience for the occasion.

The two Bach Violin Concertos were Mullova’s solo vehicles Monday night. While she weaved organically in and out of the tutti textures in the A Minor Concerto’s opening Allegro, the initial impression was overall stiff. Mullova played from sheet music, somewhat surprising for someone with a Bach reputation such as hers, and while her playing was largely pristine, at times she seemed buried in the score.

The flowing Andante fared better, with Mullova attuned to the reflective aria’s harmonic pivots, though there is more pathos to be found in this luminous music. While she found some virtuosity in the swirling figuration of the Allegro assai, this conclusion ultimately lacked flair and impact.

The E Major Concerto after intermission made a more positive impression. Mullova brought subtle esprit to the initial Allegro, imbuing Bach’s lines in lively fashion with a variety of articulation and wider spectrum of dynamics. She brought a hushed, sighing aesthetic to the central Adagio, sustaining the movement’s seemingly endless phrases, and was polished in the regal concluding Allegro assai. Cohen led an overall responsive accompaniment, though conducting from the keyboard at times made it difficult for him to quiet the orchestra when it was called for.

The Contrapunctus I, IV, and VII a 4 from Bach’s Art of Fugue preceded the concertos, with Cohen leading the MOB strings. He directed led the consort through Bach’s intricately interwoven lines ably enough, but there were no revelations here beyond Bach’s very familiar contrapuntal ingenuity.

Cohen was at his best leading the two French Baroque suites that bookended the program.

The evening opened with a Suite from Le Bourgeois gentilhomme of Lully. He drew incisive string playing in the austere Overture, and the oboes and bassoons brought reedy courtliness to the ensuing dances, taken mostly from the play’s faux “Turkish” ceremony. Laura Osterlund’s fine recorder playing added a piquant layer to the collective sonority.

The evening concluded with selections from Rameau’s Les Indes galantes, Naïs, Hippolyte et Aricie, and Dardanus (a movement or two each). Bassoonists Lewis Kirk and Preman Tilson deserved enormous credit for articulately keeping pace with their string colleagues in Rameau’s many fleet passages, and oboist Anne Bach offered nimble solo contributions throughout.

Cohen drew unified and flexible playing from the string sections, again leading in an understated fashion, and paced the many unfolding episodes of the concluding Chaconne from Dardanus with intelligence and sound musical instincts. His subtle leadership brought out the immense gallant charm of this under-performed repertoire, and let us hope for more of it from Cohen and MOB in the future.